This is chapter five of the book RPS/2044: An Oral History of the next American Revolution. RPS/2044 has its own book page, with front matter, reviews, essays, interviews, testimonials and place for user interaction with the interviewees. It is available via Amazon, if you would like your own copy. In its fifth chapter Andrej Goldman and Senator Malcolm King discuss Trump winning.
Andrej, at the risk of focusing too much on one event and its aftermath, I wonder if you could tell us a bit about your reaction to Trump winning?
Lots of people wondered why Trump became President. My first reaction was to wonder, why ask why? Were we morbidly curious? Were we seeking someone to blame? Were we looking to escape blame ourselves? Or did we hope to find a workable path for the future? I opted for that last motive.
I knew mainstream media coddled Trump throughout the primaries and well into the national campaign. I knew it delivered eyes to advertisers, not truth to the public. I knew that even when relatively more enlightened media moguls finally saw a disaster brewing, they continued to prioritize short term profits.
What I took from this was that if all the largest megaphones were operated by profit-seeking elites and if our smaller megaphones were operated as a discordant cacophony, we would continue to face insurmountable odds. We had to carve our own communication paths. We had to “press the press” and also build alternative print, radio, video, and social media.
I knew the DNC torpedoed Sanders’ campaign and if the Democrats had not squandered grassroots white working class support in prior decades, Trump would not have won no matter who he ran against. I knew it was accurate to blame the Democratic Party but that the Democratic Party did what it does, which was to protect privilege. I took from this that progressives could benefit from a reconstructed Democratic Party and radicals could benefit from new parties plus major election reform.
I also knew if the Republican base had decided to forego their party to block Trump on grounds of his incredible debits, Trump would have lost. But other than pointing to the obvious need to “organize, organize,” did that observation lead anywhere new? I took from these thoughts that we shouldn’t ignore allies but we also shouldn’t spend all our energy organizing only allies. We ought to solidify existing support but also grow new support.
Malcolm, didn’t blaming white workers happen a lot?
It was certainly true that had fewer white male and female workers voted for Trump, he would have lost. Even just voting for Clinton at the same level that white voters had supported Obama over Romney would have sunk Trump. So the choice of a great many white workers to vote Trump abetted Trump’s victory. Deciding why they voted Trump is where heated controversy arose.
Some argued voting for Trump meant you didn’t care about his misogyny and racism or you even desired misogyny and racism. You were a little Trump. Most who said this totally dismissed Trump voters as lost to reason. Others agreed that while Trump voters were horrible, we must still reach out to them. However this seemed to mean we should shame them, “call them out,” confront them, label them backward, ignorant, or worse, and demand that they repent. No point discussing, debating, or organizing. Repent, and we will like you. Don’t repent, and we will hate you.
Some replied, “do you really believe Latinos who voted for Trump are little Trumps? Do you really believe women who voted for Trump, which is most white women, are little Trumps? If you don’t, then presumably you think that these groups saw reasons to vote for Trump that not only weren’t racist and sexist, but that overrode their distaste for Trump’s racism and sexism. But if you see that this could be true for Latino and female Trump voters, then why assume that most white male working class Trump voters weren’t moved by the same non racist and non sexist feelings as some Latino voters and the majority of white women voters? If white workers who voted for Obama had voted for Clinton, Trump loses. Did many white workers vote for Obama but not Clinton because they were racist? Did they vote for Obama but not Clinton because they – and remember, this includes more than half of white women – were sexist? Why isn’t it possible that many white working class Trump voters from devastated communities who were suffering drug-invaded and unemployment-saddled neighborhoods and bombarded with horribly faulty media misinformation, were mainly voting against the status quo and not for racism and misogyny”?
Similarly, couldn’t even better-off, white, working class Trump voters fearing job loss, suffering indignity, hating doctors, lawyers, managers, and coordinator class elites, and inundated with confusing and contradictory information, have been voting against the status quo and not for racism and misogyny? Wasn’t fear of working class decline that great?
Andrej, many interviews done with Trump voters pointed toward better, albeit confused, motives. So why did so many upset anti-Trump commentators and even left activists assume worse motives?
Perhaps one reason was they lacked knowledge of the pain, suffering, and daily fear contemporary working class Trump voters felt. If you didn’t see that, you wouldn’t deem it an important motive. But I didn’t think ignorance much less dispassion for working class suffering was a major reason why so many progressives castigated white workers as irretrievably racist and sexist.
So what else might have caused it?
Imagine you thought that more people believing rampant racism and misogyny motivated Trump voters would lead to more effective follow-up activity to reduce racism and misogyny. Imagine you also thought that more people believing that most Trump voters were attracted to Trump’s claim that he would aid the “working class,” would reduce effective anti racist and anti sexist follow-up activity. You might label racism and sexism paramount not because you had compelling evidence it was so, but because you felt convincing folks it was so would best counter racism and sexism.
Those who said racist and sexist motivations were paramount seemed to feel that to deal seriously with racism and sexism those phenomena had to be aggressively “called out,” shamed, and even punished. In this view, asserting that other factors played a significant role would lead to less calling out and shaming of Trump voters. It would in this view cater to them, coddle them, and reduce prospects for improvement.
In contrast, some felt Trump voters were largely motivated by anti establishment anger funneled into a candidate who appeared to acknowledge them, hear their grievances, and say relevant (albeit, lying and manipulative) things. They felt activists needed to avoid adding to Trump’s voters’ feelings that liberals, progressives, and radicals reflexively dismiss white working class concerns as stupid or vile. They felt we needed to show what action on behalf of working class gains should include. We needed to explain, without denigration and dismissal, why Trump wasn’t an avatar of desirable change. We needed to point out the incredible injustice and harm racist and sexist policies did without pointing our fingers at the people we were talking with. We needed to address that economic and social support for workers faced opposition not only from owners, but also from managers, doctors, lawyers, and the top-level union bureaucrats who the Democratic Party catered to. We needed to talk not at Trump voters but with Trump voters. We needed to hear their valid insights and debate important differences. So for me the big divide was should we we try to shame Trump’s voters, call them out, and label them racist and sexist, somehow thinking that doing that would cause them to side with us? Or should we try to reach out, listen, hear, and strongly address the class issues that both white and non white and male and female Trump supporters powerfully felt, but also not yield an inch regarding racist or sexist beliefs? More introspectively, should organizers working with white workers assess our efforts to see if anything we had been doing may have contributed to workers willingly voting for Trump?
Didn’t some feel black voters deserved a share of the blame?
Blacks voted only marginally less for Clinton than for Obama. How could they have been even partly at fault for Trump’s victory? The answer was, a few months earlier blacks voting for Clinton against Sanders in the primaries ended Sanders’ chances of winning the nomination. There were various reasons, such as Sanders starting out little known, initially emphasizing economics to the near exclusion of race, and especially fear that Sanders might do worse against a Republican, as well as, less compellingly, Clinton’s undeserved reputation as a friend of the Black community. Still, if black communities, particularly in the south, had voted more for Sanders, he would have easily won the nomination.
A lesson this implied was that while attention to race, gender, and sexuality was critically important, insular identity politics bred confusion and hostility. Just as organizers of white workers needed to assess if aspects of their work were partly responsible for many white workers holding views that allowed voting for Trump over Clinton, so too organizers in Black communities should assess if aspects of their work were partly responsible for many Blacks holding views that allowed voting for Clinton over Sanders.
What about blaming women, and especially white working class women?
Women certainly voted way less for Clinton than she needed if she was to win. Women who voted for Trump were in some cases branded racist or even misogynist. The formulation came not only from antifeminists trying to parlay it into feminist division, but from some feminists, too.
It seemed to me that this almost exactly paralleled the class and race issues we just addressed. I thought in this case, too, organizers of women should assess if aspects of their past work were in part responsible for so many women (and men) holding views that allowed voting for Trump against Clinton (or for Clinton against Sanders in the primaries). Had feminists too often organized women in ways that unnecessarily polarized men and neglected other important aspects of women’s lives?
Malcolm, what about blaming young Sanders supporters?
This view accurately claimed that by abstaining, many young Sanders supporters helped raise Trump over the bar. But why did it happen?
Suppose you thought Trump and Clinton were terrible, and you didn’t see much difference. Or maybe you thought Trump winning would be good due to the resistance it would provoke. Having those views, you might abstain. Then, once the election was over, you would protest and organize as best you could, and since Trump won, that would mean going into the streets.
One lesson was it is possible for caring, courageous people to have temporarily highly distorted perceptions, which we already knew from all of history. What I found especially striking, however, was that Sanders had no such confusion. Nor did at least some radicals who urged strategic lesser evil voting even while holding firm to their radical views on all issues. And because such clarity did exist, including coming from Sanders, it took strong feelings, I think, for Sanders supporters to abstain in contested states. I thought that however painful to dwell on, this was worth understanding and that some additional lessons lurked in the experience.
Both Trump’s voters and Sanders voters who abstained seem to have acted on feelings of anger and fear. For the Trump voters it was anger at their life situation and fear of Clinton. For the Sanders abstainers it was anger at their electoral mistreatment during the primaries and fear of cooptation. I felt both groups allowed their fully warranted anger and fear to wrongfully overcome other factors. I took from that that organizing needed to become considerably more compassionate, subtle, and persistent to overcome this tendency.
Even now, I find it hard to hear blame going toward those who were surely among the best and most committed to change at the time. What about the role of the Green candidate Jill Stein and her advocates?
Stein’s voters, Stein herself, and various left pundits disseminated a steady stream of messages claiming there was no major difference between Trump and Clinton, that Clinton was absolutely going to win, and that votes for Stein were wise because Stein could do quite well. But votes for Stein certainly took votes from Clinton in contested states. And it wasn’t just that if Stein’s voters had all voted for Clinton in those states it would have stopped Trump. It was also that abstentions generated by Stein disparaging voting for Clinton as shilling for the Democrats also reduced Clinton’s votes in those states.
It was one thing for a constituency that was quite reasonably fearful, suffering, and subject to poor information to make desperation-motivated electoral mistakes, as did Blacks voting for Clinton over Sanders or white workers voting for Trump over Clinton. It was another thing for people with lots of political experience who enjoyed relative safety and maximal information access to not only make a mistake, but to then adamantly and aggressively urge it on others and to even castigate those who were rightly trying to point out the error.
I don’t want to belabor this twenty-five years later, but one lesson it conveyed to me was that strategic lesser evil voting makes sense whenever the gap between evils is large enough and no other use of one’s vote offers greater benefit. Of course, assessing the size of the gap between evils and the merits of other choices can and should be debated – but in 2016 there was no debate but only baiting, disparagement, and dismissal. Yet the gap was so wide, and the benefit of voting for Stein or abstaining in contested states was so minor, that it was hard not to be incredulous at those who doubled down after Trump was elected by celebrating Clinton losing or even celebrating Trump winning as a prod to resistance.
Another lesson was that having an astute analysis of the ills of elections but applying it only to mainstream participants is self defeating. Stein understood elections and was sincerely radical, but nonetheless let her desire for votes overwhelm her desires to achieve good or ward off bad. Likewise, many radical writers who became caught up in Stein’s campaign urged that people saying we should vote for Clinton in contested states were, on that account – and sometimes despite decades of evidence otherwise – shills for Clinton, a label that caused many to want to avoid that false stigma. People who earlier gloried in his work even labelled Noam Chomsky that way, which was incredibly striking.
I took from all that, that radicals needed a far more nuanced approach to elections and, when we managed to win, also to holding office, than we had ever before had. We needed to not only have good programmatic aims but also to not get sucked into the vote-emphasizing and audience-manipulating we rightly decried in the mainstream.
Andrej, was there tension between Sanders’ Our Revolution and early RPS?
The Sanders-spawned project, Our Revolution, sought to raise money, galvanize volunteers, and provide grassroots organizing for candidates and some policy campaigns. The danger was that it would become so enmeshed in electoral pitfalls that its value would dissipate.
There was a moment when Our Revolution may have become what RPS later became, but no one in Our Revolution’s leadership displayed that inclination, though many of its energetic local organizers did. While some efforts were made to galvanize its more radical elements to radicalize Our Revolution, mistrust of the dangers of cooptation kept away folks who might have helped that happen. Nonetheless, Our Revolution helped RPS in three ways. First, it helped elect RPS candidates, and helped aid their efforts in office to win new policies. Second, people working with Our Revolution often joined grassroots campaigns, including RPS. And third, with Our Revolution in place, RPS didn’t have to angst over its choice to ignore electoral intervention. Our Revolution took care of that, even if not always precisely as RPS favored.
Reciprocally, if RPS hadn’t become so effective – including greatly strengthening the more radical members of Our Revolution – my guess is Our Revolution would have devolved into a Democratic Party booster club.